Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupil Chantal Phuay was safe in her hotel room near the base of Mount Kinabalu last Friday when she heard a child's body had been found on the mountain.
"I expected it to be one of my friends," said the 12-year-old - who was given the tragic news about her schoolmate Peony Wee Ying Ping. Hours earlier, Chantal narrowly escaped death when the earthquake sent rocks and boulders tumbling onto climbers.
The school prefect was part of a group of 29 TKPS pupils on a trip to the mountain.
Six of her peers, a teacher and an adventure guide who accompanied them died, while another pupil and teacher are still missing.
The pupils were split into five groups to climb a route of fixed cables, ladders and bridges. Chan- tal's group was waiting to set off when the earth began shaking.
Recounting her experience yesterday, she said: "Rocks fell. Everyone started gathering. Then a rock or tree fell on us and everything went pitch black. Maybe I fainted, I have no idea."
When she regained consciousness, she followed her teacher's instructions to move down the mountain but the trail was blocked by fallen trees and rocks.
"My legs were wobbly. I just thought, 'I need to get down'. I was just worried if I would see my parents another time."
It took three hours to reach the base. At the hotel, the teachers and pupils did a headcount. "We already knew who were missing. I felt guilty that I didn't help out and I just followed my teachers' commands," she said.
Chantal returned home on Saturday. But her thoughts remain with her friends who did not make it back. Among the dead were Peony, Sonia Jhala and Ameer Ryyan Mohd Adeed Sanjay, all 12.
"Peony always made people laugh and teased me. Ameer Ryyan helped me when I was climbing up the mountain," she said. "Sonia, even when she was shivering with cold, she continued to make jokes so that we would stop thinking about the weather."
Yesterday, four boys from the United World College of South East Asia who also escaped death on the mountain visited a tribute site at TKPS to pay their respects.
"We felt the massive tremor, then the landslide started to occur," said 17-year-old Arystan Tatishev, who had been taking a break with his schoolmates 700m from the summit. "We saw the Donkey's Ear (an iconic peak) fall and everyone got really scared and started to panic. If we were there half an hour later, that might have been us."
The boys spent nine hours waiting for help that never arrived before their guide led them to safety. They flew home on Saturday.
Surviving TKPS pupils see one another at their schoolmates' wakes. "I saw one friend buried yesterday," Chantal said. "We see and comfort each other. One day, I'll go to Mount Kinabalu and try it again just to ensure that the TKPS spirit continues."
This article was first published on June 10, 2015.
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